If Matt Murray isn’t careful, he’s going to lose his reputation as that scrawny goaltender from northern Ontario who won a couple of Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Murray, historically listed as 6-4, 178 pounds, has checked into Ottawa Senators training camp at a relatively robust 190 pounds. If this keeps up, he will be earning the nickname Muscle Matt. Apparently, he ate his way through the summer months, all on doctor’s orders — or at least, a trainer’s firm request.
Speaking to reporters in the flesh as a Senator for the first time Thursday — COVID-19 restrictions having been lifted somewhat — Murray, 27, said he was trying to maintain 7,500 calories per day! Oh, that we could all live under such directives.
“I always find it strange talking about my weight so much,” Murray said, “but yeah, I probably put on like, 12, 13 pounds, something like that. They kind of told me they wanted me to come back a little bit heavier. So, just a lot of working out, I got to work a lot with the trainers here, even in the summer because I did stay here for the most part.”
How has the extra weight felt on the ice?
“I feel really good. I can say it’s the heaviest I’ve ever been, so can I get back to you on that?” Murray said to one of the amateur goalies among the media ranks. “I definitely feel really good at this moment.”
At this moment, everyone feels good. It’s the first day of on-ice training, staff and media are actually permitted in the stands and Tim Stützle and Connor Brown are sniping in early scrimmages. If just for a moment, we almost forgot that Brady Tkachuk still needs a contract.
“We haven’t lost a game yet!” general manager Pierre Dorion joked to a couple of Sportsnet reporters, pumping his fist with enthusiasm.
If Murray, the Senators’ No. 1 goaltender, helps this team get off to a better start than last year’s abbreviated hodge-podge, the enthusiasm will linger.
Behind a defensive unit and forward lines that remain a work in progress, a lot is riding on Murray being the stabilizing force he was expected to be when he came over from Pittsburgh in a trade last October. Following a quick camp and no exhibition games, Murray and his new young team were thrown into the fire and the results were not pretty.
A 2-12-1 start doomed their 2020-21 season, and before it was over, Murray had a new goaltending coach, Zac Bierk, who helped guide the netminder to a 3-1-0 record in his final five games with two shutouts, a 1.37 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.
This year’s Senators will take some more helpings of that, please.
A ‘little more normal’
Considering how goaltenders tend to be creatures of habit, if not all-out superstitious freaks, it’s comforting to hear Murray talk about the simple pleasures of routine. Nothing about Murray’s introduction to Ottawa last year was normal — whether it was becoming a first-time father, dealing with COVID-19 travel restrictions that hit families hard, or the condensed schedule that saw teams starting abruptly in January.
“I think everything just seems a little more normal, obviously talking to you guys here in person is a little bit back to normal,” Murray said. “There were a lot of strange things about the season last year. The exhibition season, I think, is huge in building up to that first game. And obviously we didn’t get that opportunity last year.”
The hope is that there is some sort of carryover from the end run in late March and April, when the young Senators were beating every team not named the Edmonton Oilers.
“It’s just about building, each and every time you step on the ice,” Murray says. “And I think we did that really well as a team towards the end of last season. We took a lot of really big steps. We want to do that as a team and as individuals and help win more games.”
Clearly, Murray hit it off with new goalie coach Bierk, as sad as it was for members of the organization to say farewell to Pierre Groulx, who had worked so well with veteran Craig Anderson.
Asked to specify how and why Murray connected with Bierk, the soft-spoken Murray tried his best to explain it.
“I think we were just working on building that relationship, and the way he coaches, technically, is a way that’s similar to how I like to play. And similar to how I was coached growing up. We’ve just been trying to build our relationship, build that trust. Ever since he got here, it’s been a pleasure to work with him.”
Perhaps with hidden fingers crossed for luck, management and staff are certainly pleased with the early returns.
“When you see how he played in the second half, he was a big part of the reason we were such a good team,” Dorion said of Murray’s rebound after losing 10 of his first 16 starts. “We have a lot of faith in Matt Murray this year.”
Head coach D.J. Smith likes to see his players apply themselves, as school teachers used to say. And so he is tickled that Murray was willing to take stock of his entire game, from conditioning level to technical changes. The man rebuilt his body and his form.
“Zac, when he came in, wanted (Murray) to get stronger and he did,” Smith said. “He wanted him to put the work in and he did. And he (Bierk) feels really confident that Matt is in a really good headspace to be the goalie we brought him in to be.”
Of course, Smith doesn’t get involved in goalie instruction. Far from it. A defenceman when he played, Smith is from the Brian Kilrea school of coaching where goaltenders are concerned: “stop the puck, I don’t care how.”
“(Dominik) Hasek didn’t have the best form and nobody could score on him,” Smith said.
Hasek-like is the farthest thing from Matt Murray when he is in form. While Hasek was all non-convention and unpredictable, athletic moves, Murray is a modern product, using his size to reduce shooting room. He plays percentages and lets the puck hit him.
Last January and February, too many pucks were missing Murray and getting behind him. If he plays like he did in April, the Senators might just get a chance to sort out their new defence pairings and forward lines on the road to becoming a good team.
Norris keeps up with Tkachuk
Several players, including last year’s roommates Josh Norris and Stützle, expressed hope that Brady Tkachuk can get a deal done soon and return to the team.
“We communicate a lot,” said Norris, who typically centers a line with Tkachuk and Drake Batherson. “It’s more than teammates, we’re pretty close buddies and just kind of seeing how he’s doing and how he’s dealing with the (negotiation) process.
“I wish he had a deal done right now but it’s just what it is. He’s doing good with it and he’s taking it day by day and I know he wants to be here as soon as possible.”
Leslie injures shoulder
Defenceman Zac Leslie, a 27-year-old Ottawa native signed to an AHL contract, suffered a shoulder injury after being hit into the boards during Thursday’s sessions. Smith said afterward that Leslie will be out for the duration of camp.